On the Persistence of Magical Thinking in the Face of Grief

Mary-Frances O’Connor in Literary Hub:

A few years ago, an older colleague of mine passed away. I spent some time with his widow in the months afterward. As a prominent sleep researcher, her husband had traveled quite often to attend academic conferences. Over dinner one night, she shook her head as she told me it just did not feel like he was gone. It felt as though he was just away on another trip and would walk through their door again at any minute.

We hear this kind of statement quite often from those who are grieving. People who say this are not delusional; they simultaneously are able to explain that they know the truth. They are not too emotionally frightened to accept the reality of the loss, nor are they in denial. Another famous example of this belief comes from Joan Didion’s book The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion explains that she was unable to give away her deceased husband’s shoes, because “he might need them again.” Why would we believe that our loved ones will return, if we know that’s not true? We can find answers to this paradox in the neural systems of our brain, systems that produce different aspects of knowledge and deliver them to our consciousness.

More here.